The man behind Mediapart
Commentator Jean-Pierre Tailleur admires Edwy Plenel’s journalism exposés, but says he should practise what he preaches
TENS of thousands of protesters took to the streets of Paris on the first Sunday of May, behind Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the leader of the Front de Gauche (the “left front” coalition). He accuses François Hollande of betraying their values, and is calling for a “sixth republic” with a new constitution.
The scandal over the socialist President’s former budget minister Jérôme Cahuzac, who is being charged with tax fraud after lying to parliament and the media about a Swiss bank account, was another rally catalyst.
The news outlet most identified with such protest is political webzine Mediapart, presided and co-founded by Eedwy Plenel. His presence, “only as a journalist and staying on the pavement”, ie. not marching with the left-wing political talking heads, was no surprise.
A Canal Plus TV info-tainment program showed the easily recognisable journalist, with his brand moustache, being greeted “like a star, even bigger than Beyoncé”. Mediapart regularly posts columns written by law academic Paul Alliès, a former Trotskyite like Plenel, who leads the “Convention pour la 6ème République”.
Plenel’s team was also instrumental in disclosing the Cahuzac scandal, in an article written by investigative reporter Fabrice Arfi. Its posting on December 4, describing the secret Swiss bank accounts of France’s budget minister, resulted in his resignation (March 19) and finally his admission that he had lied (April 2).
This created a scandal in France, with Cahuzac as the bad guy as if he had been a murderer or hidden money abroad while in office. On the other side, Plenel was turned into a hero who had fought alone for the truth. excessive but not wrong.
Mediapart was launched in March 2008 and seemed to be obsessed with the then president Nicolas Sarkozy who was in his first year in office. It started making profits three years later and is therefore seen as a success story in a press industry in crisis. Unlike most news players, Mediapart has a large team of journalists who represent two-thirds of its 45 staff. It carries no ads and its revenue comes from subscribers who go through a pay-wall of €90 a year. Their number reached 75,000 this spring, including 10,000 new subscribers gained thanks to the Cahuzac scandal.
The newsroom apparently tries to respect the high professional standards of editorial director François Bonnet, a former Le Monde and Libération journalist. Arfi’s December 4 article was well written and gave the impression that it was based on serious research, giving the minister the opportunity to defend himself. I also found that their report on the Front de Gauche demonstration in Paris was honest, though descriptive in a somewhat juvenile way, and lacking perspective.
When Plenel created and invested in Mediapart, he was a long time former reporter and chief editor of Le Monde. He has been well-known in French journalism since the mid-80s, when he revealed the Greenpeace scandal, one of the biggest of the Fifth Republic (the deadly sinking of the Rainbow Warrior, an anti-nuclear protest ship, in new Zealand, by secret agents sent by Paris). Later with Mediapart, he quickly played a central role with articles including those accusing Sarkozy of having received illegal donations from the billionaire L’Oréal heiress Liliane Bettencourt. This and other potential French Watergates turned the online investigative journal into a digital equivalent of the Washington Post, according to some media analysts.
There is a huge difference, however, because Mediapart is as much an opinion journal. Plenel has made schoolboy errors on several occasions because of his ideological bent, which also makes him reluctant to cover some politically incorrect issues.
This is not a major problem, in so far as his influence is balanced by the work of digital news players following other agendas, like the pro-business L’Opinion, another online media with a pay-wall, launched mid-May with a print extension. The free access Atlantico, which started three years after Mediapart and is identified as right-wing, has also produced a few scoops unlikely to be Plenel’s cup of tea.
At the end of April it disclosed the existence of a “mur des cons” (wall of jerks) in the offices of a left-wing trade union representing a third of French magistrates. The “wall” mainly showed conservative politicians’ pictures, but also the photos of two murder victims’ fathers. Although this was revolting, and it could cast strong doubts on the impartiality of justice, Mediapart presented it as an irrelevant issue in an article posted the day after Atlantico’s disclosure.
Plenel’s website consists of two main sections, “Le Journal” fed by professional journalists, and “Le Club”, a collaborative forum with freely accessible blogs. It provides English pages with a selection of articles translated from French (not always by native speakers, it seems…).
It also launched French-Leaks two years ago, a whistleblower website modelled after WikiLeaks. But in spite of its endeavour, its content scope is limited and there is no significant return on the fees charged, except for those who share Plenel’s ideas and biases.
For this reason, its economic model may be comparable to that of an NGO or of a religious community, more based on believers than on readers hungry for news. While they do not always materialise in the credibility of his news products, Mediapart’s boss has well thought visions on his craft, and is an adept of facts-based Anglo-Saxon journalism.
This struck me when I read a 2009 book titled Faut-il croire les journalistes? (should we believe the journalists?) which he co-authored alongside two other prominent figures of the French press, Serge July and Jean-François Kahn. Although both have a longer or deeper intellectual track record than his, Plenel provided more pertinent and substantiated comments about the profession.
He reads a lot, and well, as shown also in Le Droit de savoir (the right to know), his book published last March, a high brow ode to transparency and digital journalism. not short on Anglo-Saxon models, Plenel suggests there are similarities between Mediapart and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the Missouri newspaper owned by Joseph Pulitzer, which revealed tax frauds by “local oligarchs”.
When he was one of the Le Monde top managers, however, and the group was controlling several dailies in the Montpellier region, he was not noticed as making them more pro-active, journalistically speaking…
Plenel’s contradictions were visible during a recent conference at Montpellier university where he has created a “professional Master” in journalism with Paul Alliès. It was advertised on Mediapart’s main page, with an anti-Hollande political manifesto obscurely tied to the topic of the event, under the title: “Is investigative journalism a prerequisite for democracy?”
Alliès’ introductory words, poor and pointless, were offset by Plenel’s charisma and enriched content. The journalist delivered a summary of what he has written in Le Droit de savoir, during a 90-minute festival of references including Pulitzer, of course: “He created the Columbia school of Journalism, after making his fortune with a newspaper in Missouri.”
Plenel reminded attendees of the famous quote by Friedrich Nietzsche, that “convictions are more dangerous enemies of truth than lies”. This statement applies to him, ironically.
The audience was of about 200 people, mostly old baby-boomers and Generation Y. I had very mixed feelings when I left the auditorium, especially as a former Columbia school of Journalism student. I wished my professors in New York had had Plenel’s culture, but I found the way he was staying within his ideological and Parisian mind frame terribly blinding and binding. He did not make a single reference to potential scandals in the region where he has been teaching and where investigative journalism is almost non-existent.
The young who were present looked anaesthetized, and he did not encourage them to be good reporters on “local oligarchs”. This is opposite to what is taught in the school founded by Pulitzer…Plenel’s “absence” in Montpellier was as schizophrenic as his “pavement presence” in the Front de Gauche march. The same can be said about Mediapart, whose respectable ambitions (and achievements like the one with Cahuzac) are not consistent with much of what it actually delivers.
Jean-Pierre Tailleur is a French-Argentine journalist, university lecturer, international media analyst and author of Bévues de presse, a critique of France’s journalism
Photo: Place au Peuple